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Want Happiness? Buy Experiences, Not Things, Says a Cornell Psychologist
Studies confirm that having experiences makes us happier than material possessions.
Happiness can mean very different things to different people. How to achieve it is a lifelong question for most of us. Our religions and politics offer their own prescriptions. But what does science have to say about it?
Psychology Professor Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University has made four studies on the subject over decades and came to the conclusion that happiness is derived from experiences, not things.
In particular, Gilovich focused on the purchases people make, comparing how they felt spending money on material posessions versus experiential purchases. He found that people were ultimately much happier as a result of experiences.
"People often think spending money on an experience is not as wise an investment as spending it on a material possession," explained Gilovich. "They think the experience will come and go in a flash, and they'll be left with little compared to owning an item. But in reality we remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions. At the same time, we also enjoy the anticipation of having an experience more than the anticipation of owning a possession."
In fact, the anticipation of an experience can be much more pleasurable than waiting for a material possession. You can be excited about getting a new car but unless you're a real gearhead, chances are you are more excited about the places you can go in that car and the way people will look at you being in that car.
Gilovich's 2014 study found that experiences are the glue of our social lives, mattering much more than the latest i-gadget because:
- Experiential purchases enhance social relations more readily and effectively than material goods
- Experiential purchases form a bigger part of a person's identity
- Experiential purchases are evaluated more on their own terms and evoke fewer social comparisons than material purchases.
Why do material posessions not give us so much joy?
"One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation. We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them."
A 2012 study by Gilovich described how people tend to have more regrets over inaction for experiences than for posessions. You regret more not going to a concert with friends than not buying a new table.
One big reason for why experiences matter more to us than material objects is that they are inherently social. You usually have an experience with friends or family. That makes them so much more valuable. Experiences also commonly result in storytelling and conversation and, certainly, countless Facebook posts of your vacations photos.
As Amit Kumar, a graduate student who worked with Gilovich said to the Atlantic:
"Turns out people don't like hearing about other people's possessions very much, but they do like hearing about that time you saw Vampire Weekend."
Experiences also reflect more of who we really are. They are closer to our inner selves as we are, according to Gilovich, "the sum total of all our experiences." And as such, when they are shared, experiences allow us to get closer to others in a way impossible with inanimate objects that we can buy.
As we march forward as a society, collectively pursuing happiness, it would make sense for us to consider what that happiness can be. A society that works more and more hours and has less time for leisure and experiences, is not likely to be happy.
Time to hit the road and do something memorable?
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
China moves to Russia and India takes over Canada. The Swiss get Bangladesh, the Bangladeshi India. And the U.S.? It stays where it is.
What if the world were rearranged so that the inhabitants of the country with the largest population would move to the country with the largest area? And the second-largest population would migrate to the second-largest country, and so on?
A recent analysis of a 76-million-year-old Centrosaurus apertus fibula confirmed that dinosaurs suffered from cancer, too.
- The fibula was originally discovered in 1989, though at the time scientists believed the damaged bone had been fractured.
- After reanalyzing the bone, and comparing it with fibulas from a human and another dinosaur, a team of scientists confirmed that the dinosaur suffered from the bone cancer osteosarcoma.
- The study shows how modern techniques can help scientists learn about the ancient origins of diseases.
Centrosaurus apertus fibula
Royal Ontario Museum<p>In the recent study, the team used a combination of techniques to analyze the fibula, including taking CT scans, casting the bone and studying thin slices of it under a microscope. The analysis suggested that the dinosaur likely suffered from osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects modern humans, typically young adults.</p><p>For further evidence, the team compared the damaged fibula to a healthy fibula from a dinosaur of the same species, and also to a fibula that belonged to a 19-year-old human who suffered from osteosarcoma. Both comparisons supported the osteosarcoma diagnosis.</p>
Evans et al.<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The shin bone shows aggressive cancer at an advanced stage," Evans said in a <a href="https://www.rom.on.ca/en/about-us/newsroom/press-releases/rare-malignant-cancer-diagnosed-in-a-dinosaur" target="_blank">press release</a>. "The cancer would have had crippling effects on the individual and made it very vulnerable to the formidable tyrannosaur predators of the time."</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The fact that this plant-eating dinosaur lived in a large, protective herd may have allowed it to survive longer than it normally would have with such a devastating disease."</p><p>The fossilized fibula was originally unearthed in a bonebed alongside the remains of dozens of other <em>Centrosaurus </em><em>apertus</em>, suggesting the dinosaur didn't die from cancer, but from a flood that swept it away with its herd.</p>
Dinosaur fibula; the tumor mass is depicted in yellow.
Royal Ontario Museum/McMaster University<p>The new study highlights how modern techniques can help scientists learn more about the evolutionary origins of modern diseases, like cancer. It also shows that dinosaurs suffered through some of the same terrestrial afflictions humans face today.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Dinosaurs can seem like mythical creatures, but they were living, breathing animals that suffered through horrible injuries and diseases," Evans said, "and this discovery certainly makes them more real and helps bring them to life in that respect."</p>
Join the lauded author of Range in conversation with best-selling author and poker pro Maria Konnikova!
UPDATE: Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell was not able to make the live stream due to scheduling issues. Fortunately, David Epstein was able to jump in at a moment's notice. We hope you enjoy this great yet unexpected episode of Big Think Live. Our thanks to David and Maria for helping us deliver a show, it is much appreciated.